Linguists predict unknown words using language comparison

For a long time, historical linguists have been using the comparative method to reconstruct earlier states of languages that are not attested in written sources. The method consists of the detailed comparison of words in the related descendant languages and allows linguists to infer the ancient pronunciation of words which were never recorded in any form in great detail. That the method can also be used to infer how an undocumented word in a certain language would sound, provided that at least some information on that language, as well as information on related languages is available, has been known for a long time, but so far never explicitly tested.

Two researchers from SOAS University of London and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History have recently published a paper in the renowned international journal for historical linguistics, Diachronica. In the article, they describe the results of an experiment in which they applied the traditional comparative method to explicitly predict the pronunciation of words in eight Western Kho-Bwa linguistic varieties spoken in India. Belonging to the Trans-Himalayan family (also known as Sino-Tibetan and Tibeto-Burman language family), these varieties have not yet been described in much detail and many words had not yet been documented in field work. The scholars started their experiment with an existing etymological dataset of Western Kho-Bwa varieties that was collected during fieldwork in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh between 2012 and 2017. Within the dataset, the authors observed multiple gaps in which the word forms for certain concepts were missing.

“When conducting fieldwork, it is inevitable that you miss out on some words. It’s kind of annoying when you observe that afterwards, but in this case, we realized that this was the perfect opportunity to test how well the methods for linguistic reconstruction actually work,” says Tim Bodt, first author of the study.

Read more: EurekAlert!

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